NEW HOPE – Sometimes being talented, smart and athletic can cause problems for a kid. Their options become so numerous, their interests so wandering, that things get confusing. Please know that’s not a problem for Melissa’s talented, smart and athletic MJ Matthews, 16 — a girl who knows where she’s going and why. For Matthews and her beloved horse Fido, much of life these days revolves around just two things: sitting right and turning it tight. That’s barrel racing short-hand for what it takes to maneuver the backside of a barrel, three of them, in lickety-split time.
Matthews, an incoming Melissa High junior, has barrel raced since she was 7 and was an accomplished ballroom dancer before she was 10, traveling the country with the Arthur Murray Tour. Over the years she also showed great promise in soccer, volleyball and basketball. But she’s set that all aside — basketball just last year — to focus on her true passion: barrel racing. And she’s now reached a point where she and Fido, in a head-to-head competition, can finish within half-a-second of a former world-champion barrel racer.
For the uninitiated, barrel racing is a timed rodeo event involving a rider getting her horse out of the chute, around a series of three barrels and back to the starting point, all quicker than it takes to say, “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans” maybe five times. There’s no standard distance between barrels — it varies from arena to arena — so times are only relevant to a particular competition. The range, though, is generally 12 to 16 seconds. A National Finals Rodeo barrel horse can cost upwards of a million dollars, while more general competition horses run 30 to 50 grand.
On a quiet, tree-covered patch of land just north of New Hope on June 21, Matthews discussed barrel racing, her horse and “wrecks,” with her mom, Jo Matthews, nearby — and, of course, Fido. In the shade of a rustic barn, Fido playfully snorted and nibbled at horse feed from a scoop as Matthews held it out.
“Horse-riding has always been in the family,” she said. “We’ve always had a ranch or horses or cows.”
Her father, John Matthews, a former Texas A&M football player, rodeoed as an amateur for a time and was quite good at chute dogging (steer wrestling). Jo doesn’t rodeo but enjoys riding. Matthews and her parents attend the NFR in Las Vegas every year.
“Her daddy and I are, every day, impressed when we watch her race,” Jo Matthews said. “You couldn’t be more proud.”
John Matthews agreed over the phone.
“She’s just followed her passion since she was very young and she’s never wavered from it,” he said. “It’s impressive to see somebody so young be committed to one activity and just continue to see it through, and kind of forego everything else.”
‘Let’s do it’
Matthews moved with her family from Mansfield to Melissa when she was 13. About that same time, she was looking for a summer job — not a horse — when she visited a boarding barn in Van Alstyne. The proprietor, upon learning Matthews was a barrel racer, suggested she have a look at a horse available for sale. They noted that he was fast but also high-strung, with a history of flipping backward and jumping fences when he was younger.
“I was, like, let’s do it,” Matthews said. (Note: being high-strung isn’t necessarily bad in a barrel horse.) Out came the 4-year-old, paint-quarter horse mix — dun-colored (tan) with a reddish brown mane and tail, and blue eyes.
“I thought he was gorgeous,” Matthews said. “I got on him and automatically we just clicked.”
Fido stands 16 hands tall, which is big for a barrel horse.
“You would have never looked at him and said, ‘He’s a barrel racing horse,’” Matthews said. “You look for shorter horses that have short, stocky bodies.”
So what sold her on him? His speed and trainability, she said.
“His willingness to learn was really amazing,” Matthews said. “… Within the first month of me riding him, we were already winning money.”
Often it takes several months to get a barrel horse trained, she noted.
“Normally, during the first month you’re taking them to barrel races to sit and watch,” she said. “He was just really smart and wanted to do it. You can’t really hold him back when he gets in the arena. He kind of just goes.”
What makes a good rider? Matthews says one needs to be “pretty much fearless and you have to have a lot of trust in your horse.”
“You have to always be thinking and know how to handle certain high-pressure situations or really scary situations,” she added. “… You have to have the heart to want to do it. And you have to love your horse and love the sport.”
Matthews said the toughest part of barrel racing for her initially was adapting to an arena atmosphere — and competing with pros as a young girl.
“I was the only 7-year-old out there with all these professionals,” she said. “That was really hard for me to do because I was always nervous and I felt like I wasn’t good enough.”
As for the arenas, “Your adrenaline is pumping,” Matthews said, “and everything is happening at one time and you can’t really process it.”
Horses, too, often have difficulty adjusting to the bright lights and noise.
“If a horse is real spooky, the barrel racing atmosphere will freak him out,” she said.
Matthews says she feels lucky to have been blessed with God-given talent, adding that her favorite Bible verse is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” She’s also thankful for the support she’s received from family, especially from “Grandfather” John Matthews and her “Maws” Robin Lucas.
Matthews has had two “wrecks” while racing — i.e., nasty falls with her horse. The first was at Alvarado’s M7 Arena in 2016 and the other was just last month at the Lone Star Cowboy Church in Nevada, Texas. That last one had especially bad potential, she said. “The ground was kind of bad and he slipped and fell and flipped over on top of me. So he’s a little bit sore right now. We’re trying to get back into it.”
Note the love: Thousand-pound Fido rolled on top of her – and she’s worried about him being sore. Matthews avoided serious injury in both “wrecks.”
“When those accidents happen and you’re standing there, it does get very scary,” Jo Matthews said. “She’s riding a thousand-pound animal at speeds of 30-plus miles an hour. … But she is extremely good at what she does.”
Matthews said the biggest race she’s competed in is last year’s Junior National Finals Rodeo qualifier in Bryan, Texas. There, only the top 10 riders out of about 800 made the cut and Matthews missed it by one. She was on another horse, Dean’s Rose, that day. Matthews hasn’t yet taken Fido to a Junior NFR qualifier but the pair has claimed first place at numerous events, which always means cash — and/or a nice buckle. She and Fido won a buckle at a Farmersville event last year and weren’t even there for half the season.
“I was really proud of him for that,” Matthews said.
Before bursting out of the barrel racing alley, Matthews says she talks to Fido and they’re “in their own little world.” And once they take off, Matthews stops doing two things till their race against time is over: 1) breathing and 2) hearing.
“I’ll hold my breath the whole time because I’m so focused,” she said, “and I don’t hear anything.”
“The first turn sets you up for the rest of your pattern,” Matthews said, adding that a bad first barrel can kill a run – and a rider’s mindset. A correctly addressed barrel, she said, involves being a bit wide approaching it and finishing the backside tight.
“That sets you up really good for your next barrel,” she said.
The critical spot at the back of the barrel is called the “rate point” where the horse “sits” — must dig its hind legs into the ground for a spin and acceleration to the next barrel. This is where power in these horses’ hind ends is a must.
“That will take a lot of time off your race if they sit right and turn it tight and come out straight. … One-one-thousandth of a second can lose you thousands of dollars.”
Then comes the turn for home — and Fido’s long stride is big plus here.
“He could be a race horse if he wanted to,” Matthews said.
Barrel racing goes on year round. Matthews says she often competes twice a week and that some type of event is held nearby most every day. A partial list of regional venues include: Denton’s Diamond T, Hopper Ranch in Aubrey, Decatur’s NRS Arena, Zaal Ranch in Collinsville and Terrell’s Wade Arena. Then there are the rodeos: Lewisville, Blue Ridge, Gainesville, Cleburne and Wylie, to name a few. And at many events, amateur barrel racers can compete against the pros.
A top role model for Matthews is Fallon Taylor, the 2014 World Champion and a seven-time NFR qualifier. Taylor lives just up the road from Melissa in Collinsville.
“She is so genuine to all of her fans.” Matthews said. “She sets a really good example for people. And she has her own clothing line. … She loves kids, she loves her horse and she loves what she does. Everything that I do is really inspired by her.”
And, don’t look now, but Matthews has competed against Taylor and stayed within four-tenths-of-a-second of her more than once. “Fallon will break the record everywhere she goes half the time,” Jo Matthews said. “And MJ will be right there with her.”
Then there’s 2012 World Champion Mary Walker of Ennis – she’s a friend of Matthews. The two text back and forth about barrel racing and perspectives on life. Walker won her championship at age 53 after overcoming a serious race injury and the death of her son.
Passing on what she’s learned over the years, Matthews offers barrel racing lessons to young girls.
“She’s a role model to a lot of these little girls,” Jo Matthews said. “She shows up, and if her hair’s on the side, braided, you look up and all a sudden everybody’s hair is braided. Everybody is hanging their tack the way she does. It’s neat to watch because very few 16-year-olds could be the way she is with all these little kids.”
So remember the name MJ Matthews. You may hear it one day — in person if you’re lucky or on television — from a National Finals Rodeo announcer as Matthews charges into the arena, knowing full well there’s nowhere she’d rather be.